Sinitic Trends in Early Islamic Java (15th to 17th century) by Hélène Njoto (Nalanda-Sriwijaya Center)
Note: This article is reproduced from the latest issue of NSC Highlights. For more, please see : https://goo.gl/XoyXfM
Java’s north coast is known to have had cosmopolitan and multi-religious towns where Muslim travellers and traders settled since the early 15th century. While there is scarce evidence of the presence of Muslims and foreigners in the early Islamic period, the accounts of past Muslim ruling figures, revered as holy men (wali), have persisted. These accounts have survived thanks to the fairly good conservation of the mausolea of these holy men, many of which are five to six centuries old. These mausolea, considered sacred (kramat), are visited every year by thousands of pilgrims from Java and other parts of the Malay world.
These mausolea contain elements of a Sinitic (relating to Chinese culture) trend in early Islamic Java. Historical sources note the presence of ‘Chinese’ among the Muslims present on Java’s north coast in the 15th and 16th centuries. Local Javanese traditions and hagiographies also suggest that some of the most prominent holy men were of Chinese descent. Some are said to have come from Champa, the former Hindu-Buddhist kingdom of present-day coastal Vietnam (Manguin 2001).
Nevertheless, the ‘sinitic’ origin of some of these holy men on the Javanese coast remains enigmatic since there is little material evidence apart from these mausolea remains. The richly decorated wooden panels that enclose these tombs on four sides, delicately sculpted, some in openwork or painted in red, are indeed vaguely reminiscent of a Sinitic culture. However, most motifs and stylisation, such as the lotus leaves in a pond, represented in a naturalistic way, had in fact already appeared during the Hindu-Buddhist period, possibly as the consequence of earlier Sinitic borrowings.
However, the motif of the seated feline figure stands out. These feline figures, sculpted in wood or stone, were found in four religious sanctuaries such as in the mausolea of Sunan Drajat and Sunan Sendang Duwur. In these mausolea, they are represented in-the-round, in a seated hieratic position, bearded, with their maw wide open and their tongues pulled out (in Sunan Drajat). They have volutes motifs on the legs and a necklace or winged-like motif spreading from the scapula backwards. These feline figures suggest that these holy men had developed a taste for decorative features found in China and the Indo-Chinese peninsula of the same period.